The Bible in the Early Church (Justo L. Gonzalez) -- Review

THE BIBLE IN THE EARLY CHURCH. By Justo L. González. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2022. X + 194.

                The Bible didn't just fall out of the sky in one piece ready to be published. Rather, it emerged over time, perhaps over more than a thousand years. For Christians, what we know as the Bible, especially the New Testament, has an interesting history, both in terms of creation and its transmission through time. Therefore, to truly understand its emergence, development, collection, and availability, we need the perspective of a church historian who understands the complexity of the Bible. If you want to explore these issues in a way that is both accessible to the general reader and is rooted in scholarship, there are few historians better equipped for this job than Justo González.

                Justo González might be best known for his church history textbook The Story of Christianity as well as his A History of Christian Thought. He’s also written books on the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, commentaries on Scripture, and St. Augustine, to name but a few. The Bible in the Early Church is just one more contribution to the greater good of the church. González is now a retired United Methodist minister and professor of historical theology.

                The title of González's latest book, The Bible in Early Christianity, needs a bit of clarification. That's because the range of topics found here takes us well beyond what we normally consider "the early church." The point of the book, ultimately, is González's desire to help modern Christian readers understand how this Bible that we turn to as our authoritative guide to the faith came to be. As he writes in the introduction, "the path leading from the first ancient Bibles to the one you hold today in your hands is long, complex, and providential" (p. 1). The word providential is important. It doesn't mean that the Bible we use is inerrant. Instead, it means, as González makes clear, God plays a significant role in bringing the long process of development to fruition so that we might have a text that nourishes our faith.

                Gonzalez divides this book into three parts. Part 1 focuses on "The Shape of the Bible." Part 2, "The Use of the Bible." Part 3 focuses on "The Interpretation of the Bible." After he explores elements of each of these parts, he offers us a "Cast of Characters," so we can know the identity of important players in the transmission of Scripture to us. There is also a list of further readings for those who wish to dive deeper into specific parts of the conversation. Again, this book is written with a general audience in mind. In fact, this book came to mind after my son and I had a lengthy conversation with a Muslim friend comparing the Quran and the Bible. This is the kind of book that can help explain the intricacies of Scriptural transmission in a way that is accessible and understandable to one who is not Christian but is interested in understanding this book we Christians look to for guidance.

                González begins in Part 1 by unpacking the question of the shape of the Bible. He offers us chapters on "the languages and contents of the first Christian Bibles.” In case anyone needs to know, the King James Version is not the first Bible. Thus, we learn here about the primary languages of the Bible, remembering that there is no one sacred language. The Bible we have was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Here we’re reminded that when the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament, they are using the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek translation, not the Hebrew. Then, in chapter 2, "The Shaping of the New Testament," we're reminded again that the Bible of the earliest Christians was the Old Testament, and more specifically, the Septuagint (Greek translation). He shares with us how the early writings of Paul and others were gathered, shared, copied, and eventually given authority in the church. Again, the Bible didn’t appear all at once but emerged over time. In chapter three, we learn about the physical appearance of these early Bibles. González describes how the Bible was written down and passed on using scrolls and codices (books). He notes that these early Bibles were produced using parchment and papyrus (plant-based). This is pretty practical stuff, but it reminds us why there are so few early copies of the biblical books. If they were copied using papyrus, a very fragile plant-based, paper, they often did not survive through time. We're also reminded that each text was hand-copied (the printing press was a fifteenth-century invention). If you want to know how chapters and verses came to be, well there’s a chapter on that as well. They didn’t emerge until the tenth century (chapter 4). He offers a chapter on how the text was transmitted through the centuries. This chapter introduces us to the various existing texts and variants and how critical editions were eventually produced taking into consideration the various manuscripts, all of which didn’t agree in every detail (chapter 5). Of course, Since there eventually was a transition from manuscripts to printed Bibles in the fifteenth century, it’s helpful to know how this was received. Remember that one of the primary jobs in many monasteries was copying biblical texts. This was seen as a sacred duty. So, you can understand, as González shares with us, not everyone was happy with this development. Yes, it made the Bible more accessible but there were downsides to this transition. That included the spiritual side of things.

                So, that's how the Bible came to be, but how was it used? That's the focus of Part 2. We start in chapter 7 with a word about how the Bible was read and used in worship. It’s good to remember that the Bible was hand-copied until the fifteenth century, so very few people had Bibles of their own. However, Scripture was read in worship to inform the people of its content and message. Since the Psalms were among the most quoted portions of the Old Testament by the New Testament authors, Gonzalez offers us a chapter on the Psalms and their use (chapter 8). For those who insist that one must read the Bible for themselves, in chapter 9, González notes that while this is impossible for most Christians until recently, there were opportunities for Christians to engage in private reading. They might not have a complete Bible, but they could have had access to summaries or portions of the Bible. With the emergence of the monasteries, monks had the opportunity to read (when they weren't copying texts). Nevertheless, unless one was wealthy, access to texts was difficult to come by. Chapters ten and eleven offer introductions to the practical use of Scripture, both in education (ch. 10) and in forming the social order (ch. 11).

                The final section of the book, Part 3, focuses on "The Interpretation of the Bible." He first discusses the various models of interpretation that emerged in the early centuries, beginning with Jewish models (ch. 12). From there he discusses the development of the allegorical/typological model that was a dominant way of reading Scripture until the Reformation, which led to a focus on the plain or literal sense of the text among the Protestant communities. Once González lays out the primary models of interpretation, he spends the next three chapters showing us how Scripture was interpreted in relation to three "crucial texts:" "creation (ch. 13), the Exodus (ch. 14), and the "Word" (logos) (ch. 15). The final chapter of the book speaks to lessons that we might gain from understanding the past so we might better journey into the future. Gonzalez offers three promises from this study of the Bible and the Early Church. I will leave it to the reader to discover what these might be.

                The Bible is a complex collection of books and stories, that provide teachings and laws, and more. Sometimes it's difficult to get our heads around this complexity. It’s easier to think that it was all dictated by God and packaged in nice leather-bound books from the very beginning. But such is not the case. Thinking of the Bible as a theological library filled with rare sacred texts might be a useful way of envisioning the text. While people often read the Bible as if it was written primarily to us, the fact is, the biblical books had an original audience along with an entire history of development and interpretation. Those of us who had the privilege of going to seminary should have a good sense of this, but what about the rest of the church? Shouldn't they have access to some of this knowledge in a format that is understandable and yet rooted in good scholarship? My answer is yes. Justo González not only believes this to be true, but he also wrote the book. So, take and read The Bible in the Early Church for the good of the church and the world.